Interviews & Profiles

Regulating the internet as a public utility

A Q&A with state Sen. Sean Ryan, chair of the Commerce, Economic Development, and Small Business Committee.

Sean Ryan, chair, State Senate Committee on Commerce, Economic Development and Small Business

Sean Ryan, chair, State Senate Committee on Commerce, Economic Development and Small Business New York State Senate

Since joining the state Legislature as a member of the Assembly in 2011, Sean Ryan has been pushing for greater access to broadband and greater accountability for internet providers. He was a sponsor of legislation that compelled the state Public Service Commission to conduct its own study of internet availability, affordability and speed across the state in an effort to get better data than what was provided by the Federal Communication Commission. As chair of the Commerce, Economic Development and Small Business Committee, Ryan has continued to fight to hold providers accountable and would like to see them regulated under the Public Service Commission like other public utilities.

What do you see as some of the biggest obstacles to achieving affordable outcomes for low-income residents in the current free-market model deployed for internet connections in New York and most places across the country?

There’s no true competition. You’re going to get Spectrum, if you’re in a Spectrum area, and that’s it. If you’re in an area with Fios, then you might at least have a choice. But right now there’s no choice and it’s the Wild West. There’s no regulations on it.

You have talked about adding regulations to internet providers on the consumer protection side, and treating them like other public utilities. What would you hope to accomplish in bringing those companies under the regulatory framework of the state Public Service Commission?

If you compare it to National Grid, I bet every time you turn your lights on, the light goes on. It’s not the same with the internet. The reason it’s not the same is because we regulate National Grid, and if they promise to deliver your electricity, and you pay for it, and it doesn’t happen, the PSC gets after them. With Spectrum or Fios, it’s you against the company with very little consumer protection. We’ve got a lot of money from the federal government that we’re going to try to include to improve internet service. But, we have to make sure that along with the deployment of money comes consumer protections.

What is the Legislature doing to move forward with the Public Service Commision regulations?

I have a bill. You could tell the PSC to regulate it as a public utility. Then Fios or Spectrum would have to do things like submit a plan in case of a windstorm as to how they would get service back up. The PSC would then go hire people to test the services being delivered and if you’re paying for high-speed internet and your device shows you’re getting low-speed internet, then they would tell the company they’ve got to return part of your bill. If you go look at the number of lobbyists employed by Spectrum and every New York state internet company, it’s all designed to defeat any regulation. That’s the game we’re in.

What did the pandemic teach you about the importance of high-quality internet? How can those lessons be applied going forward?

I think it really helped sharpen people’s focus to realize just how important it is for activities of daily living. More and more you are offered a telemedicine appointment. You can’t have that appointment if your internet is not reliable. We also found that there were places in the Adirondacks where the largest provider in those areas is the public library system. So it really is the unserved in places like the Adirondacks, but then the underserved in places like the city of Buffalo, given the times that there’s no internet, it’s not working. If you have a problem with your internet provider, it’s between you and them. If you have a problem with National Grid, the PSC stands in your shoes.